HL Deb 28 January 1985 vol 459 cc467-87

4.8 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Avon)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I know that many Members of this House have taken a keen interest and a justifiable pride in our new towns. Indeed, it was a committee under the late Lord Reith who laid the foundations for new towns. The first New Towns Act in 1946 followed closely the framework laid down by that committee. It provided for new town development corporations with wide-ranging powers to achieve the planned development of their areas. The aim was then, as it has remained ever since, the achievement of thriving, balanced communities, able ultimately to be treated in the same way as other towns. I am myself conscious of being a novice in this debate where every speaker has more knowledge than I and, indeed, most of them are leading experts. The main theme of this Bill is that final step for the new towns in England and Wales.

In Scotland, the pattern of progress foreseen by the Government is different, and this Bill does no more than make some minor changes in relation to the Scottish new towns. For English and Welsh new towns, however, it addresses squarely the question of what is to be done when the new towns approach maturity.

Eight new town development corporations have already been wound up and their remaining assets and liabilities transferred to the Commission for the New Towns. Another five are due to be treated in the same way in the course of this year. The three new town development corporations in the North-East of England were due to be wound up at the end of this year, but their future is currently under review and the Government are aware of the need for an early decision. Our conclusions will be announced as soon as possible. The Cwmbran Development Corporation, in Wales, is due to be wound up at the end of March 1988, and the target has been set for winding up the remaining four corporations in England in the late 1980s. Consideration now has to be given to precisely what date that should be. Now is the right time to look ahead and make the necessary legislative provisions for the final winding up of the new towns programme in England and Wales.

Before turning to the details of the Bill, I should like briefly to look at the history of the subject. Although there has always been a considerable consensus on the powers needed by development corporations and the way in which they should tackle their work, the same cannot be said about what should happen when they reach the end of that development task. Lord Reith's own committee was divided on that issue. Some say that the transfer of the assets and liabilities to the local authority for the area is the correct solution. Others saw objection to the idea of combining the role of the local authority with large-scale ownership of land in the town. These differences were reflected in the 1946 Act, which allowed a variety of outcomes, including even the sale of the assets.

By the late 1950s the problem was becoming more urgent as some of the new towns near London approached completion. The then Government decided it would not be right to combine local authority functions with widespread property ownership. As an interim solution they introduced the New Towns Act 1959. This created the Commission for the New Towns as the public body which would inherit the assets and liabilities of development corporations when they were wound up. As I mentioned, eight new towns have already passed to the commission, and five more are expected to do so this year. But even then the Government made clear that the commission was not in itself the final answer: that, it was argued, would emerge with the benefit of time and experience.

Nothing lasts like the temporary. After nearly 25 years the time has come to resolve this problem. The Government do not believe that there is a case for a continuing special public sector involvement in the new towns. Our policy has been aptly summarised as being to make the new towns as much like old towns as quickly as possible. The special involvement of the public sector through the ownership of land and buildings has been an important tool in promoting the growth of the new towns. But when that induced growth has been achieved and there is no need for further growth, the case for that special involvement ceases. We believe that the right solution is for the property which in other towns is owned by the private sector to pass into the hands of the private sector in this case. Within the framework of the New Towns Act, and with the modifications made by the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980, we have already seen steady progress in this disengagement. Some £500 million worth of commercial and industrial assets have already been sold to the private sector. This Bill provides for the continuance and completion of that policy.

Against that background I should like to turn to the first of the detailed provisions in the Bill. Clause 1 enables the commission to continue with the task of disengagement and normality—unlovely words, but they state clearly the basic aims of the policy. The clause picks up from the existing provisions the remit of "holding, managing and turning to account" the assets which the commission inherits from development corporations. It then restates and clarifies the powers of the commission to realise those assets as soon as it considers that expedient. By adjusting the existing provisions, the clause then goes on to provide the necessary controls over the commission's work, consistent with its main tasks.

Clause 2 gives the Secretary of State power to wind up the commission when its tasks are substantially achieved and makes appropriate provision for dealing with residual assets and liabilities. But the Bill can only set the general framework within which the commission can operate. Your Lordships will want to hear more about the way in which it is intended that these powers should be used. I draw particular attention to the passage in Clause 1 of the Bill which requires the commission, in carrying out its task, to have regard to: the convenience and welfare of persons residing, working or carrying on business there"; that is, in the towns for which they are responsible. This requirement qualifies the whole of the commission's activities, and I emphasise this because it shows the way in which the commission must approach their work.

The activities of the commission must vary according to the circumstances of the town. My honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Construction said in another place that it was not the intention that the activities of the commission in the towns where they are about to assume responsibility would be a carbon copy of what they are doing in the towns in the home counties where they have long had responsibilities.

The example of Corby is already enough to show that this is the case. The commission undertook responsibilities in Corby in 1980 when the development corporation was wound up. Corby was then faced with special difficulties because the steelworks that the new town was built to serve were closing down. The commission, as part of its programme agreed with my department, undertook, in conjunction with the local authority, a substantial development and promotion programme. I believe the general consensus is that it has been a success.

The commission's response will therefore be flexible, depending on the needs of the towns in which they are operating. Where it is necessary for them to undertake development and promotion they will be able to do so. We expect them to relate their activities of this kind specifically to the realisation of the assets which they will inherit; but to bring land intended for industrial development into full productive use will require support and promotion for developments. To sell industrial premises at a proper price will need the local economy to be in as good a condition as possible, and that again will involve more than simply auctioning off buildings for what they can get. In all this we shall of course expect the commission to act in accord with general Government policy for limiting public expenditure; and we shall hope to see reliance placed mainly on encouraging private investment.

New town development corporations have on the whole good relations with the local authorities in their areas. This is something we wish to see continue when the commission takes over. There are bound to be changes in two respects at least, for the local authority will be undertaking greater responsibilities. In the first place, public sector rented housing in the new towns will in most towns become the responsibility of the local housing authority. Everywhere we hope to see the local district council take over responsibility for the public open spaces and other facilities for the use of the community which have been provided and maintained by development corporations. We believe that we have reached an equitable basis for this transfer.

I have already spoken about the arrangements at Corby. There the commission's input has been side by side with that of the district council. The Joint Industrial Development Committee there has done good work. The commission are setting up liaison committees elsewhere where it is taking over their responsibilities. They involve local district councils and representatives of the county councils, and the local business community can be brought in as necessary. Some of these committees have already started meeting. The reports I have suggest that the foundations are being laid for a helpful and cooperative approach.

I spent a fair time explaining the first proposals in the Bill. If I may, I will now deal more briefly with the rest. Clauses 3, 4 and 5 make some changes in the arrangements for housing transfers. Clause 3 simplifies the form of a housing transfer scheme. Clause 4 provides explicit statutory authority for the grants which are already being paid under the authority of the Appropriation Act.

Clause 5 provides that the Crombie terms of compensation will not be available to staff affected by any future housing transfers, including those about to take place. The Government's intentions on this were made clear by my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State for the Environment in May 1982.

With Clauses 6, 7 and 8 we come to the other main theme of the Bill. The new towns have always been financed mainly by borrowing. The expectation was that the development of the towns would create sufficient surplus to repay that borrowing. In the case of the first generation of new towns, that expectation has on the whole been fulfilled. In the case of the second and third generations, it has not. Circumstances have changed in many regards, and some specific decisions in the 1970s substantially increased the liabilities of the new town development corporations. The result is that the second and third generation new towns are unlikely to provide sufficient surpluses to service all the debt that they have incurred. The Bill therefore provides for financial reconstructions.

For the new towns where developments will continue for some time, their finances will be reconstructed by means of writing-off some of the debt and by providing grant for the provision of facilities such as roads and open spaces, which cannot be expected to pay for themselves. This will give these development corporations a new, clear remit for their remaining work. For the other new towns, part of the outstanding debt will be suspended while the assets are realised and applied to the redemption of the debt.

Finally, the House will have noticed that the Bill contains a reference to the urban development corporations. The sole provision in the Bill affecting them is an increase in the finance available for them. This is part of the regular system whereby programmes of this kind are made subject to parliamentary review. It gives an opportunity for a review of the activities of the corporations—an opportunity which your Lordships may have noticed was fully seized on Report stage in another place. For present purposes, I just want to say that the two urban development corporations are doing a magnificent job and that the provision of further resources for the regeneration of the Merseyside and London docklands is entirely justified.

Although this Bill contains some quite complicated provisions, its general purpose is simple: to enable the new towns programme in England and Wales to be brought to a satisfactory conclusion and to permit the urban development corporations' programme of regeneration to continue. Both purposes are fully justified. My Lords, I commend the Bill to the House and I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—[The Earl of Avon.]

4.22 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Eskan

My Lords, when I was chairman of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation I had occasion, in the early 1970s, to discuss some development problem with the then—Conservative—Secretary of State for Industry. As I was leaving the Minister's room, he took me aside and said: "We are going to be difficult, but we are not going to be stupid." That seemed to me an admirable formula which I hope still applies.

To the extent that this Bill is designed to produce a more rational and businesslike system for those engaged in new town and urban development, to clarify the role of the commission and to assure the orderly completion of the new towns, it is to be welcomed. But I must say that I wish there was not such an air of unseemly and possibly even improvident haste in the process of winding-up. The building of new communities, of new towns, has by any standard been a success, socially, economically and in terms of generating new jobs in modern factories and offices, with up-to-date equipment in pleasant surroundings for living, working, travelling and retirement.

The real achievements of the new towns, socially and economically, have far outweighed their imperfections. They have also offered, although this may not entirely earn them good marks with our present Government, splended examples of the virtues of a mixed economy. Public investment got them going and on that foundation the private sector can progressively take over until the development corporation finishes the job.

I have never understood the contention that the renewal of old towns and the building of new communities are mutually exclusive. Generations in the past have built towns and cities appropriate to their needs. Today's old towns were once new towns and were built to satisfy the needs and standards of their times.

I want briefly to deal with three points. First, those development corporations which have not finished their work should be allowed—indeed, encouraged—to do so. The Government should see to it that their work is completed in a way which does not leave a long-term burden upon the areas which have provided the sites for these great schemes of British post-war development. And those who have invested their lives, their livelihood and their money in what was originally a paper plan, in the belief that the Government would see it through, must simply not be let down.

Milton Keynes, for instance, is only about half finished. Even The Times in a leading article on Christmas Eve last wrote: The development corporations (quangos that they are) have in most cases impressively fulfilled their tasks in building, letting and boosting. Is that job finished? In Milton Keynes, also in Peterborough and Telford, the answer is 'No': the Milton Keynes Development Corporation has work (performed at minimal net cost to the public purse because of the strength of its porfolio of assets) to last well into the I990s". It is extremely difficult to find anybody outside SW 1 who does not think that it would be folly to change the management—to change the rules—now. The main effect would undoubtedly be to dry up the flow of private investment and to sell the towns short.

The great attraction of a new town to private housebuilders and to commercial and industrial investors is that the generation of jobs, the building of houses and the development of social services, education, transport, recreation and so on all go hand in hand. This is something that does not happen when there is no development corporation on the spot.

My second point is this. For the first time, sensible arrangements are being offered whereby grants, as against loans, may be made for certain categories of development expenditure. By all means let the Government be difficult, be tough, in the application of this new system, but I hope that they will not be stupid. For instance, where some comprehensive and balanced development has been approved by Whitehall, it should be unnecessary to insist on specific approval for every item of expenditure involved. I hope that the Government will not engage in quite unnecessary and expensive, in time and money, nitpicking, for the want of a more eloquent word. It is hardly unfair to say that, up to now, new towns have been built more in spite of than thanks to the rules, but often thanks to the good sense of the officials interpreting them.

My third and last point is this. Hitherto, when development corporations were abolished, as the noble Earl said, the commercial and industrial assets were handed over to the Commission for the New Towns, which retained powers and responsibilities for promoting the towns, for generating jobs, and for maturing the assets until they could be sold without detriment to citizens and investors. This was thoroughly sensible, for it recognised the need for, as it were, a transitional period. Is it now the Government's intention that the primary function of the commission should be to disengage from its role as commercial and industrial landlord, to minimise its promotional role, and to sell off the properties as soon as it can be rid of them? What can be more improvident than to jeopardise the full realisation of the capital and revenue value of public investment in new towns by turning off the tap before the culmination of its potential?

This Bill is said to be necessary to enable new towns to become self-sufficient communities, to discourage their special public sector involvement, and to bring the new towns programme to its completion. I find the last purpose sad, because I believe that the new towns programme has been a great British success story since the war. It has certainly been recognised as such abroad. But if the end must come, let it not be by scuttling. I hope that the noble Earl can undertake that the genuine completion of properly balanced communities with flourishing employment will be encouraged.

I should like to say a last word on employment. The generation of jobs is a crucial role of development corporations. New towns have proved themselves particularly successful in attracting foreign investment which might otherwise have gone elsewhere in Europe. With unemployment the bedevilling evil of our society today, no agency should be disbanded or discouraged that has proved its continuing capacity to provide new jobs.

4.28 p.m.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, I accept that this Bill is not entirely unexpected, but neither is it wholly acceptable at this point of time. Those of us who have been involved with new towns knew that at some time or other those new towns would be wound up when the development corporations' job was completed and that the town would then be handed over, more or less, to the local authority. In the early days we thought that we were being practical and realistic—not idealistic—when we believed that as a general rule it would be right for the commercial and industrial properties to return to the community, because it would have been the community, the community activities and the amenities, that would have played the major part in increasing the value of the leasehold properties.

I still believe that the new town communities should benefit from the increment in the value of land. I am not opposed to local shopkeepers buying their own shops or to local industrialists being able to buy their own factories and warehouses, and I applaud tenants having the right to buy their own homes. But I am opposed to the commission being able to dispose of the properties on the open market, probably to faceless pension funds, insurance companies, multinationals and banks. If this is to be, then we need to ensure that there is not a sudden glut of industrial and commercial properties on the open market, with the result that a fair price is not obtained. We must realise fully the proper value of these assets and any forced sale of land, shops and factories would cause concern within the new towns.

On housing in the new towns, must all the rented accommodation be transferred to the local authorities? Cannot housing associations and co-operatives also be involved in managing some of this rented stock? There must be a sensible transfer of the housing stock and community buildings and enough time must be allowed for this to proceed smoothly. It must not be rushed, and any botched-up and ill-thought out schemes produced against a deadline date really must not be tolerated. I understand that Milton Keynes, which has been so excellently referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, Redditch and my own city of Peterborough have already established combined housing departments to administer both stocks of rented accommodation, that belonging to the city council and to the development corporation. This is good practice because it allows the housing department to assume those extra responsibilities in an orderly fashion. The district councils and the development corporation housing departments are unlikely to have been organised on exactly identical lines and it will take time for a proper system to evolve using the best standards of both.

I would hope that at least another five years, in the case of Peterborough, would be allowed from the public announcement of the date of winding-up, but if the local administrators—the city council and the county council—feel that perhaps three and a half years or four years might be more reasonable, then due consideration must be given to their views.

I hope the Minister will also be in a position at some stage in the course of our consideration of this Bill to give us more detail about payments for repairs and defects in the property handed over. If future defective property is handed over, or property which is found to be defective after it has been handed over, where will the money come from to meet such unexpected repairs? With the limitation of rates and the threats of penalties and of rate-capping, the existing districts will not be too anxious to take over a possible future burden without some guarantee of financial help from the Government where the case is proven.

I accept that the local authorities will be taking over the former special new towns grant, and in future that will be part of the housing subsidy. But that may still not be enough if serious defects occur later. Is the Minister satisfied that the subsidy on capitalised repairs will be adequate? If not, how will the local authorities obtain redress?

If the third generation of new towns are to be wound up, as the Minister hopes, in two or three years' time, will the commission be given a really positive role in promoting new towns until the sale of outstanding industrial and commercial land has been completed? I know this is a problem for my own new town of Peterborough and I have also received representations from people in Milton Keynes, but they have been much better covered by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. The new town authorities believe that the commission will still have a very real job to do for some years to come.

Consultations are going on between the department and the authorities which are affected by the winding up of the development corporations and the future role of the commission. Will the Secretary of State have real regard to what those authorities want and feel is necessary? They will have to assume the responsibilities and their views must carry real weight in the decision about the timetable to be imposed on them. The year 1987 is the date in the mind of the Secretary of State for the winding up of the programme in Peterborough. I believe that the development corporation, the city council and the county council all feel that this is too soon. I personally should have thought that 1990 was a much more likely date. Will the views of the authorities count?

I want to turn now to Peterborough because I believe that their views would broadly coincide with the other third generation new towns. I was a member of the county council and of the development corporation until I had Front Bench responsibilities in your Lordships' House in 1975. In 1967 when the old Huntingdon and Peterborough County Council were in being they were considering the Government's proposals for our new town. They were given assurances that financial contributions would be made by the development corporation towards the cost of providing the local authority services so that local authority ratepayers would not bear an undue burden. That agreement covered the point that the main roads servicing the new town would be financed by the development corporation with a very limited county council contribution. The county council also received a graduated sizeable contribution over a number of years towards the cost of educational provision in the new town area. Over the years, after the 1974 reorganisation when we became part of Cambridgeshire, in spite of these agreements it became apparent that the scale and pattern of the development and its phasing was putting an "undue burden" on the local authority finances and on the existing ratepayers. This view was shared by other county councils with new towns in their area.

When I was a very junior Minister at the Department of the Environment, Cambridgeshire County Council and the other five counties involved came to impress upon the Minister that the financial burden was too heavy, and that new town development should not take place at the expense of their county ratepayers. The year 1976 also was a time of cutback in shire counties' spending. Our populations were growing in advance of our grants and, to their credit, the Labour Government of the day accepted our arguments. They agreed that the development corporations would make contributions to the county councils to alleviate the heavy financial burden associated with the rapid growth of population. Despite the continuing financial problems that growth brought to those counties—even with this agreement—the Conservative Government terminated that agreement and to this day I understand they have never produced a financial analysis in support of that change of heart. Then came the slowing down of the development of the new towns, resulting in county council facilities being under-used for longer periods than was expected when we entered into the commitments. Specialist facilities cannot be fully used until the designated area is fully populated.

Those local authorities with new towns have taken on these commitments at the behest of central Government. It was central Government who inspired the planned growth of the designated new towns and the Labour Government agreed that the development corporations should accept some financial responsibility in this matter so that the local domestic and business ratepayers did not carry this undue burden. Peterborough New Town is now established and is a great success, but there is still a need to maintain the momentum of work which is not yet completed, including the £6.2 million priority mainroad programmes not yet completed—indeed, deferred as a result of Government restraints. The prolongation of this programme into a period after the life of the development corporation could have adverse financial consequences for the county council unless special funding arrangements are made for them to be built later by the county.

The local authorities and the development corporation are jointly promoting at this time a Cambridgeshire-Peterborough international axis, as it were, to attract business and commercial firms into the area. That needs to be ongoing, and, with limited finance available to the local authorities today, I doubt if they can do it on their own. The expansion of Peterborough or of any new town is not going to cease on the day the development corporation is wound up. There has always been a move from the deprived inner cities, and the promotion of the development corporations over the past two decades or so has meant that that movement has happened in a balanced way because the development corporations have been superb job agencies at little or no cost to the local authorities.

Our marketing activities have been excellent—few people have not heard or read of the "Peterborough Effect"—and there must be the means of maintaining that adequate marketing capacity until and after the development corporation is wound up. What will be the real long-term promotional role of the commission? How do the Government see the role of the commission in supporting local amenities and social and cultural projects?

Looking ahead on another question, the Cambridgeshire structure plan is now being reviewed and rolled forward to provide a long-term planning framework beyond the period of the master plan. Will the Secretary of State be in a position to approve these revisions before the development corporation is wound up?

Then we return to the vexed question of penalties and targets. They do not take account of the financial consequences of population changes. Natural growth will continue and I plead with the Minister to see that the targets are not based on past spending but on up-to-date measures of spending need.

The real success of the new towns and the urban development corporations has been their ability to do some pump-priming. With the Dockland Development Corporation £200 million was pumped in in the initial cash and some £50 million to £60 million into Merseyside. An organisation which has proved to be good for dockland and for Merseyside should be good for other cities, too. The new towns have built up specialist teams with considerable expertise. They could do so much if they were kept together as teams to use their undoubted expertise, to become catalysts for growth in depressed areas in inner cities or even in regions. Is it not possible to develop some limited-life agencies on an inner-city or regional basis to do something similar to what the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies are doing? Please do not let all this expertise go but try to use it in ways similar to those I have suggested.

Finally, by and large, the new towns have been a success. They have provided new jobs. They have provided new industry, good housing, a good social mix, better community facilities and a pleasant environment. We all owe a considerable debt to those who work in and for our new towns. We should be proud of their achievements and want to see them flourish in the future.

4.43 p.m.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, I did not put down my name for this debate because I did not intend to speak on Second Reading but it slowly dawned on me as the debate proceeded that there would be no opportunity for me to speak at the Committee stage because that essentially deals with the detail of the Bill and I do not want to deal with its detail.

I thought that the fundamental aims of the new town movement would be dealt with in the debate, but up to now I do not see it. As a past chairman of the Runcorn Development Corporation, before it was wound up and joined with Warrington New Town, I do not know how one measures the success of a new town. It would be wrong for me, still involved in the new town movement, to claim success for something of which I am a part. If dealing with unemployment and enabling the inhabitants to lead a fairly decent and tolerable life are an indication of the success of new towns, then certainly the new towns in the South-East of England have achieved their objectives and must be ranked as successes; but, to be perfectly frank, to talk about a success in the context of Runcorn, where there is still 14 per cent. unemployment, is not a bright prospect for me, coming from that area myself. Therefore, I hesitate to claim that we have been successful.

As I see it, one of the fundamental problems of the new towns is that we did not see the difference between the establishment of phase one new towns and phase two and what is left for the future. The aim of the new towns in the South of England was fairly clear. It could be seen and the need for them could be seen. It was to try to settle the massive problems that were occurring in the capital cities—especially the problems of congestion. We had quickly to get people into decent living accommodation and give them space to live. I think that, by and large, no one can deny that that has been achieved.

However, those of us in the North of England who were watching the new town movement in the South of England were beginning to say that the solution did not apply to us because our problem was not really congestion. While the new towns were being built in the South-East of England the northern cities were creating their own. Some of them could be criticised for the way in which they were created but one could not call Kirkby anything but a new town. The fact that Liverpool Corporation was compelled to build it but was not given the social powers to provide the infrastructure in Kirkby New Town cannot be blamed on Liverpool. Liverpool built a new town but it was restricted in its activities to within the boundaries of Liverpool, and that was wrong. It led to a tremendous number of failures in the achievement of a good environment at Kirkby, which are now beginning to be tackled.

The problem in the North of England is not the same as that in the South. One of the tragedies of the new town movement was that we did not close down some of the earlier first stage new towns earlier than we ultimately did. I believe that some of the resources going into new towns in the South should have been directed towards the North long before they were.

What are the prospects for the future? I do not believe that the solution to the problems is just creating a new town that is a perfect new town in itself. I have always seen the new town movement as part and parcel of a national plan and that the purpose of new towns nationally was to develop places where we would have the good life, where people could live in tolerable conditions, with jobs and incomes in order to provide that decent life. If we keep on looking at new towns individually we shall never get to that situation. I make this plea to the Government: that the commission takes over the existing new towns.

The problem about the urban development corporations is somewhat less clear. If the purpose of the urban development corporations is to solve the massive problems in Merseyside I do not think there is any great limiting timescale to their existence because the job to be done there is too massive.

Reference was made to the success of the urban development corporations. I do not know whether the urban development corporations have been in existence long enough to have made a success at all. If they had been a success that success would have been in Merseyside. But can anyone say that Merseyside is a success, that Merseyside is an example of good planning, of prosperity and of where people are living a good life? It is not.

What is needed now is a fundamentally new approach—and I do not see it in the Bill—to the question of establishing new environments in that part of our kingdom that needs it. It is not, if I may say so, in the South-East but in the northern parts of this country. Unless we find some way of, first, establishing a partnership between localities in the North and the Government in the South and, secondly, making sure that the resources are shifted from the South, and the South-East in particular, into the North, we are never going to solve the problems.

What I should like to see is the commission's approach widened. At some time in the future it should be given more power. I do not suggest that this Bill is the right time to do that, but I think that the Government should give some attention to creating more powers in the commission and to making it longer term. It should be a tool by which central Government can devolve to the North some of the resources that are now in the South. Unless we do that, the urban development corporations are destined to fail. There is no way that the UDCs will bring the necessary number of jobs to the North of this land through private enterprise.

The Government must sit down and draw up a plan to move from the South-East all the jobs that need not be there. The Government Civil Service does not need to be in the South-East to the extent that it exists there now. I have said that inside the Chamber and outside it until I am getting tired of hearing it, let alone others. It is true to say that there is no long-term unemployment problem in the South-East but there is a congestion of jobs. One has only to look at the advertisements for job vacancies to realise that that is absolutely true. Private enterprise finds it very difficult indeed to find all the secretaries and administration personnel that it needs in the South-East because of the pressure that comes from the siting of Government offices in the capital. When this Government came to power they withdrew the proposals to devolve Civil Service jobs to the North. But there are jobs that can be shed from the South-East and moved to the North.

The commission, as an arm of Government, can be used in the effort to get jobs to places like Merseyside and the North-East of England. I make this plea: Let us not carry on looking at new towns as we have looked at them for the past 35 years. The job that needs to be done in Great Britain now is entirely different from that which needed to be done 35 years ago. Now we have to make sure that there is a fair crack of the whip for everybody in England. We must not develop Stansted, the Channel Tunnel and the London Docklands to the point that they strangle the rest of the country and deny the North of this land the resources that it really wants.

4.52 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I think that the Minister will be as grateful as I am to noble Lords on the Back-Benches on this side of the House for three excellent speeches. I make no point in that respect. We have not had merely the voices of politicians—although they are politicians—hut of practitioners. They have brought to the House the sum total of their experience in one new town development corporation or another in grappling with the problems. The words of the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Eskan, and the noble Lord, Lord Sefton, are very valuable indeed. They speak not only from their experience, but also from their hearts. Those of us in this House and in another place with experience can sense when a person feels controlled passion for the subject about which he speaks. In my view, all three speeches were well worth listening to and I believe they augur well for the Committee stage of the Bill.

Some of us have travelled this road before. The Minister was fair when in his opening words he said that this was only part of the departmental responsibilities with which he was grappling. The new towns road is a long road, and it was always envisaged that it would have an ending. We are not tonight debating when the metamorphosis of the new towns will take place, but what we on this side of the House consider to be a number of unsatisfactory methods that the Government are using to complete the new towns programme.

Reference has been made to the programme. To be fair, the Minister acknowledged that the new towns per se were a success story. There have been problems and disappointments in one new town or another, but as an experiment in social engineering and planning we are entitled to say that it has been a success. Over a period of 40 years the new towns programme has had the support of the two main parties which have formed Governments. Although we do not need too many statistics to bolster our satisfaction, I think that one or two are well worth reading into the record. Over that period 400,000 new dwellings, 700 new schools and 5,000 new shops have been built; 1 million people have transferred into new towns, and 2 million are now living there. There are jobs by the hundred thousand. We are entitled to take some credit for that.

The Minister quite properly spent most of his time on those parts of the Bill which deal with the new towns, but we must also remember that it deals with urban development corporations. The Minister said that, finally, in passing, he came to the urban development corporations. I intend to say a great deal more about them. They are crucial to the situation.

The creation of development corporations was also tagged onto legislation in 1980. When the Local Government, Planning and Land Bill emerged (which was already three Bills rubbed into one), along with it came the announcement that we were to get the enterprise zones—yet another Bill; so there were in fact four Bills rolled into one. I had the pleasure of serving on the Committee on that Bill. It was a pleasure. I learnt a great deal from Members on both sides.

My noble friend Lord Sefton treated the UDCs very seriously, as we should. He sees them as a counterweight to transfer resources. What do we have in this Bill? When introducing the Second Reading debate on the Bill in another place the Minister for Housing talked in terms of a new wonder ingredient to salve and to ease all pains. He talked of the magic of the market place. If it is rubbed on at night, all those nasty spots will disappear: take it whenever you are feeling down, and, bingo, all your troubles will be over! The Minister felt that the solution to most of the problems was in the magic of the market place. Such touching faith in such dubious remedies qualifies the Minister for a Which award—"The witch doctor of the year"!

There is much to be said for proclaiming that after 40 years of public subvention the time to call it a day may be at hand. Three generations of new towns have come and are going. We on these Benches have no quibble ultimately with the end. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, asked, why is there this inordinate haste? Why is there this hurry? When there are people with the qualifications in situ, ready and able to continue satisfactorily to run down the machinery, why disturb a very good system?

Members of Parliament who represent new towns have been able to bring to Parliament first-hand experience of the problems facing their constituents. I refer to tenants, ratepayers and business men. It is all very well to announce the date for winding-up, but it is quite another thing to hand over the business of running the new town to a body which is in good heart, with the financial resources to carry forward the good work of the past 20 or 30 years.

Let us pause for a moment and look at the plight of tenants. Tens of thousands of them, glad to go to a new town, get a new home, obtain a job and live a new life, have had untold misery heaped upon them as a result of defective housing. Of course, defective housing is a minority of the housing that has been built but there is a great deal of it. It is one thing to hand over corporation housing to a local authority; it has been quite another for that authority to obtain the cash out of the department to remedy the structural defects in those houses.

As a direct question, I ask: what can the Minister tell the House on this matter? He will refer to Clause 4 in this Bill. But he will know that to talk, as does Clause 4, of "accepted remedial work" is wholly inadequate. Many councils are lumbered with appalling situations, with thousands of houses needing to be made fit, but are denied the resources to do so because the Ministry has proved tardy in the extreme in recognising the size of the task. What has the Minister to say to those wretched tenants? I think particularly of Peterlee. It is estimated that £40 million is required to put in order development corporation houses that they have had to take over from the development corporation. They have received far less than half the sum of money required to put them right.

Then there are the owner-occupiers. Many occupy purpose-built houses; others have bought their own house. As ratepayers new town residents suffer more than most from the capricious nature of government rate support policies. Here I plead in aid the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, who speaks with knowledge on these matters. New towns are involved in many infrastructure costs, wholly disproportionate to normal towns of their size. The rates structure, with its exemptions and qualifications, fails abysmally to take into account the special characteristics of new towns. When the Government glory in—and I quote from the face of the Bill— the completion and subsequent winding-up of the new towns programme in England and Wales", they completely fail to pay adequate attention to the problems this leaves for councils, residents and industrialists.

The Minister must know that there is much uncertainty and unease about in many towns. The failure to accept the very reasonable requests of my honourable friends, and the failure of the Minister of Housing in another place to give the local authorities affected some right to consultation, are shabby. I recall that the Minister in his opening remarks said that there were good relationships between development corporations and local councils. The Minister was absolutely fair in that way. Yet when my honourable friends in another place sought to amend the Bill to give local councils the right to consultation when disposing of assets, that was resisted by the Government. I wonder whether the Minister can say something about that here, or will he wait until Committee stage?

When we come to the economic wellbeing of new town communities moving into the unclear waters over the next few years, that is where I have the greatest sense of foreboding. I refer to the transitional period into which we are passing. I should like to plead in aid a communication I received from the Association of District Councils who obtained this information from the Wrekin Council. Wrekin has Telford New Town in its area. This is what they have told me: One of the major issues for the council is the future role and life of the New Towns Commission in terms of employment development and promotion and the future of land ownership. When the development corporation is wound up, its residual assets would pass to the Commission who will in turn be given the prime responsibility of disposing of those assets. They will have a promotion function which is presently London based with area teams located within individual towns after transfer. Given the local circumstances, it seems highly unlikely that this mechanism would prove to be adequate for Telford with the town so far short of its target size and if unemployment levels persist at present levels, as seems likely". Will the Minister address himself to that point, which was the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, who said that the prospects of completing their programmes and the problem of unemployment were very worrying indeed?

I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for referring to the question of what is going to happen to the teams of people with skill, talent and experience who have been able to attract to the new towns firms from all over the world. On the face of the Bill there is talk in terms of 5,000 employees who will be distributed in one way or another. It says that some will be required by the commission, others will be required by the local authorities, and yet others will be required by private sector bodies and housing associations. The precise proportions cannot now be predicted. The Minister must be aware of the very serious worry and concern which exists among the staff at every level in the development corporations and in the commission. He really ought to say something to us tonight about that matter.

I turn to the situation in the urban development corporations. This was one of the bright ideas that were spatchcocked into the 1980 Local Government, Planning and Land Bill, just as it has been gratuitously tagged on to this one. We on these Benches opposed the concept of urban development corporations at that time and since then we have not learned to love it any more. Much common ground exists about the nature of the problem, the daunting nature of the task. It is when we examine the how, the when and the who of the problem that we come to grief. Members of Parliament representing riparian councils expressed a large body of agreement during debates in the other place.

First, whoever are clapping their hands at London Docklands developments, they are not those who live in the area and are in housing need. I read of properties selling for £200,000, £300,000 and more, built by the development corporation for Docklands. I also read of cheaper properties, of a variety of schemes. But I want to hear more about houses for rent. Those that are being built in the modest price bracket are snapped up by, among others, council tenants. However, how are the hundreds of thousands of tenants trapped in high rise developments to sell their flats? To whom can they sell them, and for how much?

Together with my noble friends Lady Denington and Lord Underhill and the noble Lord, Lord Airedale (who I see in his place), last week I had the pleasure of a visit to a number of developments that were built by either the GLC or councils in Southwark, Greenwich or Tower Hamlets. The purpose was not to discuss the Docklands Development Corporation. However, we saw the enormity of the problem that is facing these councils. We visited the Ferrier estate in Greenwich. We could see dockland developments all around us. On the Ferrier estate there are 74 blocks of houses—74 on the one estate. They are bereft of community assets. We were told that it would cost £35 million to put those properties right.

Again, I am indebted to my noble friend Lady Stedman for making the remark about the reneging by a previous Conservative Government on commitments that were made that moneys would be made available in order to put properties in good order, because we are on the verge of something comparable happening here. In the local government Bill to abolish the GLC there are in Clause 84(1) powers that the Secretary of State will take to revoke or amend the terms of the transfer orders once the GLC is abolished. When we are talking about the future happiness of hundreds of thousands of people who are affected by the urban development corporation for Docklands, we are entitled to say this. Surely the Government cannot possibly have insisted that Greenwich, Tower Hamlets, Lambeth and the other bodies take over these houses and that they have to put them right, and are now perhaps going to say, "The moneys that we said would be made available for you to put them right are not coming forward". I see the Minister looking somewhat puzzled and I appreciate that this may not directly be part of the brief.

If we are to say these things are taken into account in the housing investment programme allocation, then the councillors and the officers of those local authorities will be greatly relieved. They will be relieved that, despite Clause 84(1), their ability to pursue the undertaking that they have given to their tenants, in the light of the insistence by the Minister that the properties had to be accepted on those terms, is not going to be disadvantaged. If the Minister can give that assurance here or in Committee—because this will be a continuing process—I am certain that the councillors and the officers will be very happy.

I turn to aspects of the running-down or winding-up of new towns and the selling-off of commercial and industrial assets. Battles have been fought and water has run under many bridges. Original predictions were hurled at the Government by myself among others that forced sales to meet Treasury demands would result in bargain prices in a difficult market. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, also referred to these points. We argued that local, small, struggling businessmen would be done out of their shops and factories, that investment and financial interests would step in to buy up large blocks of real estate, and that company towns would be created. I have read with interest and fascination every word of all stages of the debates in another place. All those predictions appear to have come to pass, according to Members in another place, in greater or lesser degree. I do not raise the principle of privatising public assets by "flogging off' shops and factories, except to say that I am against it. But the Minister has a duty to assure the House that the fears that I have listed are not being fulfilled. I wonder whether he will do so today.

Finally, I refer to the words of my honourable friend Mr. Harry Cowans on Third Reading in another place. He noted that, as we have come to expect, no change of any significance to the Bill had been made during its passage through the Commons. He pleaded that when the measure comes to your Lordships' House it should be altered so that it becomes more reasonable and more constructive. We intend to give the Minister opportunity to do just that during the Committee stage. We shall table helpful, reasonable and constructive amendments. They will seek to inject greater local democratic involvement both in winding-up procedures and in the on-going programme of the urban corporations. They will have regard to the imperative to hang on to the skills and talents of workers in order to phase out successful developments with the minimum of hurt to local people. Above all, they will provide this side of the House with the opportunity to express its distaste for this avaricious, grubby little Bill, the prime purpose of which is to boost the coffers of the Chancellor in his desperate search for tax bonanzas and handouts. Let the Minister join us in improving this instrument for destruction and construct a better way of doing it.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I put the record straight in one respect? I did not want to interrupt the noble Lord while he was in full flood. The agreement to which I referred was not concerned with help for repairing defective properties; that had not arisen at the time. I was referring to 1976, when the six counties concerned came to the department to make the case for population coming in in advance of grants when we had to supply all the facilities and services for them. We had an agreement with the Labour Government for additional help, taking those points into account in preparing the rate support grant in one of its many evolutions. We managed to get help for the six counties, but it had nothing to do with defective property.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am grateful. What the noble Baroness is saying is that we have always to be vigilant, whatever the issue and whatever the Government.

5.14 p.m.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, as so often with new town measures, we have had a stimulating debate. I was moderately happy with some of the remarks that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, made until he called the Bill avaricious and grubby. Whatever else, it is certainly neither of those. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Eskan, mentioned improvident haste and asked for an assurance that there is no prospect of a sudden turning-off of the tap. I assure him that there is no improvident haste, nor will there be any sudden turning-off of a tap. The noble Lord almost led me astray on the definition of old towns and new towns and those that we shall come to next. I sympathise with the noble Lord. I do not think that I shall follow him along that line.

The noble Lord spoke about development corporations which have not completed their work and claimed that they should be allowed to do so. The Government have announced a target date of the late 1980s for these towns. This progress will take place in consultation—I stress this to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman—with the the local authorities and the development corporations. We understand how vital it is to get these considerations right.

The noble Lord asked that we should not nit-pick on the rules for new grants. I remind the noble Lord that this Government have provided a radical simplification of the rules. These greatly simplify new towns' work. The same spirit, I assure him, will exist in relation to the new grants. The noble Lord also asked that the commission should not sell the assets before they are right. I have already stressed that the commission will vary its approach according to local circumstances.

In assessing the corporation's case at Milton Keynes the Government have concentrated their concern on giving the opportunity for further growth, taking into account whether it is essential to retain a development corporation to achieve that growth, and, if so, for how long, or whether the town should be sufficiently established by 1989 to grow on its own, with the market determining the rate of expansion, and whether it is necessary to keep all the powers and development functions of a corporation for a further decade to achieve this end.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, in referring to a very liberal, I thought, SDP programme, reintroduced me to that lovely commercial for Peterborough to which I listen virtually every morning in my bath. All that I needed to hear was the tweeting of the birds that is part of that programme. The noble Baroness asked about forced sales. Ministers have repeatedly stressed that there have been no forced sales and no sales contrary to the best professional advice. Two-thirds of the commission's sales to date, I understand, have been to local interests. I have been asked whether all the housing has to go to the local authority. I would refer to an example in central Lancashire, where negotiations are now well advanced for transfer to housing associations. Elsewhere much depends on the view of local authorities.

Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Graham, spoke about grants for defects in transferred housing. The local authority taking over housing from a new town corporation receives, under the rules established by this Government, exactly the same resources as a new town corporation would have received if it had kept the housing. The noble Baroness also asked for an assurance that there would be no hurry in the winding-up process. Local authorities will wish to negotiate various aspects involved in winding-up and a deadline is sometimes necessary to produce satisfactory negotiations. I can assure the noble Baroness that we shall pay full regard to what the local authorities have to say.

The noble Baroness asked about the removal of new town payments to help with local authority tenders. The old system of these payments was related to the rate support grant system in force before 1981. With the change in the RSG system, the case for special payments was removed. This was done only after full discussion with the county councils' association. Special transitional arrangements were made. The department has written to the local authorities—the noble Baroness referred to Peterborough—asking what the authorities want to see done before the development corporation is wound up. We shall be discussing these views with them.

The noble Lord, Lord Sefton of Garston, referred to problems in the north. Of course, they are different, as the noble Lord underlined very ably. I stress that the response to the Commission for the New Towns will be flexible, depending on local circumstances. The development corporation approach has been applied to the problems of Merseyside. We are far from a point where it would make sense to think about what the circumstances will be when its programme is nearing completion. There have been some good achievements there, such as the success of the international garden festival, the restoration of the Albert Docks warehouses and the restoration of a water regime to part of the South Docks. The noble Lord will agree, I know, that there are other good examples.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, mentioned Peterlee. Peterlee housing was transferred to Easington District Council in 1978, with a second transfer in 1982. The department has looked into other representations there. It is satisfied that the operations have been successfully handled. The noble Lord asked about the speed of winding-up the programme. Development corporations are set up with a specific task—that of inducing growth. Where that task is complete, the development corporation is no longer needed. The noble Lord also mentioned—

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, will the noble Earl allow me? I am grateful. We mentioned Peterlee and the winding-up. The Minister referred to the three North-Eastern towns, for which a date had been announced; that is, the end of this year. Representation has been made that this be varied. The Minister said an announcement would be made shortly. I respect that; an announcement will be made. But I wonder whether he would bear in mind that in the current situation in the North-East, where unemployment is desperate, the development corporations have a special role that they can play in the special circumstances. That ought to be a factor to be taken into account when he considers varying the date.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, is totally aware that that is the very reason why the decision is being reconsidered.

The noble Lord mentioned UDCs. I think much has already been achieved here. In regard to priority for council tenants, he mentioned that the LDDC's policy is to ensure that a substantial proportion of housing schemes on its land are within the means of people earning average London incomes. It is also, however, to ensure that it obtains a fair price for the land and that the prices are pitched at a level which does not tempt small numbers of tenants to make windfall gains. I am sure the noble Lord would agree with all that.

This Bill is of course particularly important because, unlike the previous measures, it deals specifically with the question of final wind-up and sets out how to bring the new town programme to a satisfactory conclusion. The Government are confident that this Bill provides the right framework. It allows the new towns development corporations and the commissions of the new towns to build on the progress they have already made both in taking the development of our towns forward to satisfactory completion and in disengaging from the assets created, at a sensible pace consistent with the market. Our object, as I indicated at the outset, is to make the new towns as much as possible like our thriving, successful, older towns.

Before I close, I should like to say a word about the new town chairmen, their boards, and also the new town staff: the noble Lord, Lord Graham, mentioned this matter. We have discussed this afternoon a Bill which will take the new towns programme through to completion. But we should not have reached this stage—a stage where, whatever our political differences, we can all agree that the new towns have done a fine job—were it not for the commitment and dedication of all these people. The same applies to the urban development corporations. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, castigated me for not mentioning them enough. As these press ahead with their valuable work, the same can apply.

As Thucydides put it:

It is men not wars which make a city". I tried to find this in my Greek Bible, but could not. The development corporation staffs, the people who live in the towns and those who work there, all have a major contribution to make. Without them, our common aim of balanced, thriving communities could not be achieved. Our role, here and now, is to set up the right framework. We believe the Bill does that. I am confident that all the staff will keep up the good work and will steer the towns through the final phase with all the commitment and energy that they have shown through the years, and I look forward at Committee stage to seeing whether this House can improve the Bill in any way.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.